Reliving the Dream
It’s easy for me to picture things like sharks swimming around, I’ve seen it enough times on nature programs. If I want, I can go to an aquarium, watch sharks gradually losing their minds swimming around in circles and imagine how that translates to the natural world. Watch the rays in the same tank though and it’s a different story. They climb the glass, delighting onlookers by flashing their cute smiles and flap clumsily at the surface, seemingly for no reason. I know that rays don’t spend much time flapping on the top in the wild. I’m almost certain that I would at least have seen that a few times if it’s something that they really liked to do.
We know that rays can shift some when they want to though, vanishing from one spot and appearing at another miles away within the space of a tide or two. But how do they swim when they’re really on a mission to cover some ground? Do they glide along just above the seabed with wings barely beating, like a barn owl on the hunt? Or maybe they swim more energetically in short bursts, stopping every now and then to settle into the sand for a breather? Maybe they even spread their wings and hang horizontally in midwater like kites, letting the current carry them for miles until they’ve reached where they want to go?
I’d like to think that it’s a deep fascination with these kinds of unanswered questions that keep my interest in ray fishing keen. But I know it isn’t. The truth is that ray fishing, when everything goes as it should, is just heaps of fun. The fish tend to be sizeable and they’re (generally) pretty straightforward to fish for. I don’t have to worry too much about when to respond to a bite, I can just give it a minute or two after the first sign of interest and the vast majority of the time the fish is nailed.
I know that you can take ray fishing more seriously and start getting all cryptic about moon phases and air pressure but I prefer to look at it in a more simple form: tides, conditions and bait. That way, I can save the serious pondering for other things that I can’t catch without a bit of thought. I’m not saying that I’m above averagely successful with rays but I catch enough of them for it to be fun and satisfying and, ultimately, I think a lot of us share that as the main thing we’re looking for in our angling. To that end, I believe that, as long as you have your skills sorted, you can just focus on those few basic things in your approach to the more common species of ray and you should be fine.
Every year, usually around March, I get a wave of powerful nostalgia when I think about ray fishing in the summer. My mind drifts back to the summer of 2012: I was between jobs but I had some money saved and I went fishing probably every other day or so for a couple of months. It was a magical time. The fishing was good that year, the weather was kind and I enjoyed many days fishing in the sun, catching plenty of ray and flatfish.
Significantly, 2012 was also the first year that I started fishing with my friends Mark Reed and Roy Moore, a double act whose company I have enjoyed on many adventures ever since. That year also sticks out for me as I spent so much of it fishing my home stretch of coastline and not feeling much need to venture further afield. I had not long returned to sea angling after a long time away and everything seemed so fresh and vivid.
The memories I made that summer are powerful ones for me, seared into the tissues of my brain and with a particular feeling all of their own. As the years have gone by, I’ve struggled to recreate that feeling, as the character of the fishing along the north coast of Cornwall has changed a bit. Some of those spots that gave up fish so readily just a few years ago now seem to be much stingier with them.
It’s hard to beat fishing the rock marks on the north coast of Cornwall for sheer vibe though. Those cold, clear blue waters stirred by the full power of the Atlantic Ocean. Fishing under crumbling cliffs while fulmars fly in dizzying, acrobatic loops overhead. It’s a dangerous pursuit but one that, more than other regions I have fished, demands that you form some sort of personal relationship with the sea. Fail to respect it and heed its warnings and it will consume you. But the rewards for getting it right are so sweet. Spending time in beautiful surroundings with the sun beating down and getting plenty of bites from decent-sized fish has to rank highly in the top things that life has to offer us anglers. It’s usually this kind of session that I’m looking for when I’m embarking on a summer trip somewhere around my home.
I think it’s fair to say that this year has been a pretty disappointing one for Cornish shore anglers in general. There seemed to be precious little of that classic easy north coast fishing on offer. Fortunately, however, myself and my old mates Mark and Roy were recently able to hit on an oasis of quality fishing over a couple of days and experience the kind of angling that we all enjoy. No need to think about anything more than baiting up, casting out and catching another fish.
The first afternoon, Mark and myself met up at a typical north coast venue with the targets being small eyed ray and smoothhounds. This particular mark had fished well for both species the year previous, although all our efforts up to this point in 2020 had proved pretty unrewarding. With the news being that the fish were back, however, we were keen to get our baits among them. In the absence of any fresh mackerel, we were loaded with an assortment of sandeel, crab, frozen mackerel and squid. I resolved to put in a bit of time with the feathers too, a move that would eventually bear fruit.
The run up to high proved patchy, with Mark landing a couple of small ray and a hound, while I trailed behind with a hound and a mackerel. High water came and went, with just the odd hound and ray, mostly falling to Mark’s rods. There was another angler fishing to our right and, disappointed with the slow fishing, he packed up early and began to head off. I remember saying to Mark, ‘I bet as soon as he goes, it kicks off.’ And so it proved, our friend had not long departed when the small eyes switched on and we spent the next hour trying to bait up as quick as we could before we were interrupted by a squawking ratchet.
Truth be told, most of the ray were males of smaller stature but I felt that if we kept plugging away, we’d get a bigger female out. I’d just cast out a large offering of sandeel and fresh mackerel and was about to set my rod in the tripod when it started to pull around in my hands. I lifted into a stout weight and began the process of easing it to shore. This fish fought strongly and clearly had a little more mass to it. As usual, Mark positioned himself in the prime spot to pick a small eye of 9.13 from the water for me and cap off what had been a short but sweet taste of classic north coast fishing.
We shared the news of our good fortune with Roy and he headed out alone the next afternoon to see if he could winkle out a few fish of his own. I joined him later in the evening, armed with nothing but the camera bag. I suppose I could have fished if I’d really wanted to but I only had an hour or so and I was more in the mood for just getting a few solid photos of Roy’s exploits. In typical fashion, Roy didn’t disappoint and he landed a good few ray while I scurried around the rocks firing off shots.
We were talking of calling it a day when I remembered that the year before I’d photographed Roy at the same mark stood on a particular rock, reeling in with the sun setting on the horizon. It occurred to me that it would be cool to try and reimagine that photo using the better camera gear and knowledge that I have now. That was the shot that we finished our evening on as Roy reeled in his last baits of the session and packed up in the rapidly fading light.
It had been a fantastic couple of trips, the kind that stoke fires deep inside and remind me why I love this thing we do so much. The fish may not have been gigantic but there had been some decent ones and most were big enough to be sporting. After spending a long time struggling with tope (see my last story), it was a welcome change to shift gears and recapture some of that old easy-going north coast magic that I’d been missing.